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Case study: Becoming a physiotherapy researcher

By Katharine Wilcocks Advanced Clinical Practitioner Physiotherapist in Orthopaedics, Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust

Research definitely wasn’t on my radar when I became a physiotherapist. It was only once I was working at Salisbury District Hospital that I had my first taste of research.

Mr Jacobs had recently joined the team as our new foot and ankle surgeon. He knew of a multi-centre trial being set up and suggested being involved. The trial looked at the benefits of a removable boot against a plaster cast, post-ankle fracture surgery.

The trial required physiotherapist input and I was interested to get involved, so I said yes and was thrown in at the deep end on my journey into research. With the help of the research department, we set up the trial which I then worked on with my research assistant. It was a real learning curve, getting to grips with trial protocol, standard operating procedures, GCP training, research procedures and paperwork. It took some getting used to, but after a while myself and my research assistant began to work together well. Other consultants were aware of what we were doing and before we knew it, we were being asked to be involved in further studies.

By saying yes to getting involved in research, I’ve discovered opportunities to grow in my career that I never knew were possible.

This initial trial gave me a real insight into research and the difference it can make, not only to our roles, but to our patients’ lives too. It prompted a review of our own protocols and the way we treated some ankle injuries. We recruited 23 patients to this trial and hopefully helped the trial centre collect enough data to draw some meaningful conclusions.

Being a physiotherapist researcher is becoming more common but wasn’t something that I had known much about; by saying yes to getting involved in research, I’ve discovered opportunities to grow in my career that I never knew were possible. It’s greatly improved my clinical knowledge and my communication with other departments, patients and consultants. I have joined the Associate Principal Investigator (PI) Scheme run by the NIHR Clinical Research Network in conjunction with Profher2, which will help me to gain more experience in the leadership of trials and create a clearer pathway for other people like me, who want to get involved in research.

This initial trial gave me a real insight into research and the difference it can make.

Profher2, run by York Trials Unit, is a multi-centre three-armed randomised control trial looking at the effectiveness of our current treatments for proximal humerus fractures. I attended a day conference looking at the setup of the trial. It has been really interesting to be involved from such an early stage. At the time of setting up the trial, I was the main orthopaedic link with the research department so was quite involved.

I am overseen by a PI who assesses my work against a series of competencies which will be signed off once I’ve reached them. This will allow me to grow my experience and role within running trials and helps me to drive Salisbury District Hospital towards becoming a research centre in its own right. We’re doing some fantastic research, and I hope that my involvement in the scheme will enable our reputation to grow. I am also hopeful that we will be able to start looking at therapy-based trials for which I can be or support another therapist to be the PI.

Alongside growing our reputation for research, it’s also changing the way we practice. Having a solid evidence base to support why we do things can change patient outcomes, help aid recovery times, save on resources and staff time. I think it’s vital now that we begin to see the power of research realised by people higher up in the NHS so that we can ensure it’s better funded and given more dedicated time.

Initially, I didn’t have any defined time in my role for research but with the development of my role, I have been able to include research within my job description and I now have another physiotherapist involved in helping to manage the trials. We have to work flexibly across clinics and consultants depending on the trials. It’s great that the consultants are now looking out for, and suggesting, trials that we can be involved in.

It makes it challenging, but I am determined and passionate that research has the capacity to change and impact so much within the NHS. I see it as an essential part of my role and other Allied Health Professionals. Now, when I recruit physiotherapists into the orthopaedic team, or I am reviewing job descriptions, I ensure that research is mentioned in their job specification because it’s something I want to see grow.